In college I majored in linguistics with a specialization in cognition, and minored in psychology. My favorite part of this language/brain area of stuIn college I majored in linguistics with a specialization in cognition, and minored in psychology. My favorite part of this language/brain area of study was linguistic relativity (A.K.A. the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis)--although I didn't have time then to do anything but scratch the surface. The premise is that the language(s) you speak affect the way you think/perceive reality, and that the way you think/perceive reality molds the language(s) you speak; creating a self-reinforcing cycle.
It's been over 7 years now since I finished school, and the trauma of college anxiety has worn-off enough that I'm interested in digging a little deeper into certain areas that I just got an introduction to in school. I decided to start with linguistic relativity, and picked-up this book which seemed to fall along those lines. To my naïve surprise linguistic relativity is an embarrassment to the linguistic community because Sapir and Whorf took the basic idea of linguistic relativity (that resonated so much with me as a student) all the way to crazy town (e.g. The Hopi Native Americans are incapable of understanding time the way everyone else does because of how their language represents time, etc). But, never fear! Linguistic relativity is not completely dead! This book takes the stance that there is a fascinating kernel of truth to linguistic relativity in spite of its trip to crazy town. What a relief!
I think this idea is so interesting and feels so true to me because I grew up bilingual. If you only speak one language natively it's easy to think that concepts just come out of you and that language is just the vessel. But bilingualism offers contrast, and in that contrast you realize that language isn't merely a bystander. It seems completely natural to me that the emotions or thoughts that I have to express are filtered through their delivery system. I would notice that I could tell an English-speaking friend a story in English, and a Spanish-speaking friend the same story in Spanish--and it wouldn't be the same story. The basic points were the same, but the connotations and emphasis were very different; driven by linguistic and cultural influences. In the English story my concepts were getting Englishified, and in the Spanish story my concepts were getting Spanishified.
Not only do I appreciate Guy Deutscher taking the controversial stance of partially reviving select aspects of linguistic relativity in a community of intellectuals who want to distance themselves from it as much as possible, but his writing style was thoroughly enjoyable. Many popular science books are so dry, you can tell they are not written by writers. You get a list of facts, not a story. Not so here, Deutscher is a wonderful storyteller. His humor is a little odd, in an eccentric-yet-charismatic sort of way. Maybe this is entirely because I know he is an Israeli-born British linguist, but I felt like there were elements of foreign language humor/British humor, and linguist humor in his style. Foreign language humor/British humor in the amount of deadpan sarcasm and sass, and linguist humor in how he would make self-referential jokes, playing around with language. Being a linguist myself who was raised speaking a foreign language, I found him hilarious.
I wish there were more diverse examples of linguistic relativity in this book. Maybe there isn't much else that has been proven empirically yet? Maybe this was just meant to be an introduction? The main example of this book was color terms, with small sections on geographic orientation and gender. I definitely want more!
I also noticed a feminist and self-referential aspect to this book that I thought was really awesome. In English (like most other languages) there's a default to male gender when speaking about people in general, yet look at the following snippet from this book:
"Languages vary greatly across the globe, and everyone knows that the particular language a child happens to learn is just an accident of the particular culture she stumbled into."
The child is a she in the sentence above. This is just one of many examples of gender default reversal throughout the book. This she stands out to English speakers because it violates an aspect of English grammar that we all know about (most of us subconsciously)--that people are male until stated otherwise. I would expect that if you are an English-speaking male (and not a linguist or an English teacher) you've probably never noticed that English, by default, creates people in your image. I would also expect that if you are a female English speaker you've probably noticed this discrepancy. In a book about how language influences thought wherein 1 of 3 sections is about gender, this is hardly a coincidence. I think that in explaining how language influences thought, Deutscher is choosing to use language in a way that will make the reader notice things she hasn't before (see, I just did it too). Deutscher you clever dog!
Now that I've given an example while explaining how Deutscher gives examples in how he gives examples, I'm going to stop; there is no way this review is going to get any better. Self-referential loops are like catnip to linguists.
One small complaint about the eBook edition: At one point the phrase the bridge was said to be el puento in Spanish (instead of el puente). Come on! How did the editor miss a typo in such a common language like Spanish? This typo wasn't in the hard-copy of the book I have....more
Beautiful, colorful, stylized illustrations. Incredibly detailed, the hidden doors are fun. Focus on western cultures (7/10 places). Would recommend tBeautiful, colorful, stylized illustrations. Incredibly detailed, the hidden doors are fun. Focus on western cultures (7/10 places). Would recommend to anyone who loves art, or children with an active imagination. I would have adored this as a kid....more